by Chris Berger
This year, 2017, marks the sesquicentennial of Canada’s founding. With Canada Day upon us, you’re probably busy planning weekend camping trips and backyard barbecues. Me being me, however, I’m using the occasion to fill any time not spent prepping for the aforementioned parties with my nose buried in books about the birth of Canada and its continuing trials and debates. Perhaps now more than ever it is critical that Canadians do some thinking about what it means to be Canadian, and what Canada is as a country. There’s no better place to start than at the beginning.
Canada Day makes us think back to July 1, 1867 and the British North America Act that created the semi-autonomous Dominion of Canada. But given its proximity to July 4 and our close relationship with the United States, it also makes us think, rightly or not, of a more talked-about founding in the American Declaration of Independence. We Canadians tend not to discuss our founding in the same terms as do our neighbours theirs; nor is it often that we even speak or think of it per se as a founding. What does it mean to speak of Canada’s founding?
When we think of the founding of the American regime, we think of course about the so-called “Founding Fathers.” We understand that event as the result of conscious and deliberate thoughts, decisions, and actions of specific individuals and those they persuaded to join them in their undertaking. Understanding a founding as a deliberate act, we don’t seem to recognize something comparable to the American founding in the birth of Canada. The implication of many histories appears to be that “Canada” is almost an accident, a pragmatic byproduct of larger world-historical events that yielded more consequential and self-consciously premeditated outcomes elsewhere (to wit, the imperial politics of the British and French colonial powers and the revolutionary founding of the U.S.A.). And this fits our apologetic, unassuming image well.
To be sure, it’s no mistake that the American founding is to be singled out as a case study: America is unique in being the only contemporary country that is self-consciously founded on ideas, ideals, and principles borrowed and adapted from specific figures of political philosophy, in this case Locke and Montesquieu. (If American exceptionalism means anything at all, it is due to this specific fact more than any other.) But this is by no means to say that there were no coherent ideas or principles behind the establishment of any other modern liberal democracies, least of all Canada.
Waller R. Newell, Professor of Political Science and Philosophy and co-director of the Centre for Liberal Education and Public Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, wrote in the National Post some months ago on what he calls “Canada’s principled founding.” In that piece, Newell argued that, “because our founding took place in the Victorian age, as opposed to the Enlightenment era when the American founding occurred, the principles behind our founders’ debates were not non-existent, merely different.” Where America’s founders set themselves to work in the novel project of applying John Locke’s liberalism and the absolute value it placed on individual liberty and the sanctity of private property and economic enterprise, Canada’s founders paid more attention to trends taking place on the other side of the Atlantic in the direction of more organic, holistic, almost “pre-modern” ideas about social relations (see Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation for an in-depth exploration of those trends, and the writings of Edmund Burke as a shining example of this new conservative thinking at the time).
Lockean liberalism is influential in Canada, but it does not have an absolutist grip on the political culture, as is the case with the U.S. There, Lockean liberalism has the feel of a national religion, and is so ingrained in the national identity that to be something else, e.g. socialist, is to be un-American. Socialism may be a minor force in Canadian politics, but it is not fundamentally “un-Canadian.” This is due in no small part to the strong tory inflections present in the Canadian founding, which balanced liberal individualism with a communitarian ethos.
Canadians tend to see individual liberty as important, but nevertheless in service of the higher social or communal good, rather than as the highest good in itself, as is characteristic of much American political thought. So it may be surprising to some today that in the early debates over what Canada was to be, people like George-Etienne Cartier and Thomas D’Arcy McGee regarded the fledgling American republic as a hotbed of populism and therefore a threat to true liberty – what was to be Canada, they thought, must remain separate from all that if it was to survive. McGee in particular, as a classic Burkean, viewed the liberalism of the American regime as too “leveling,” as atomizing and breaking up the political community. More recent thinkers like George Grant went so far as not only to define Canada as fundamentally conservative in its collective, communitarian orientation, but to identify Canada’s increasing “Americanization” with the death of conservatism as such. Not all participants in the founding debates agreed, though: David Christie believed that there were fundamental similarities between the British and American constitutions. The question, “America or Britain?” was an important one in the birth of our country.
As a result, three fundamental alternatives presented themselves to the emerging (and continuing) Canadian polity: liberalism, toryism, and republicanism. Liberalism, as we know, enshrines the individual as the core unit of political society and tends to favour commerce and economic development. Against this were arrayed the arguments of toryism, the tradition of government guidance in economic and social life and a more “organic,” albeit socially hierarchical, vision of the community. The Canadian “Red Tory” tradition is the most famous example of this here. (In his landmark essay “Conservatism, Liberalism, and Socialism in Canada,” Gad Horowitz described a red tory on the simplest level as a Conservative who prefers the NDP to the Liberals, or a socialist who prefers the Conservatives to the Liberals, without really knowing why; and at a higher level, a red tory is a conscious conservative with some “odd” socialist notions or a conscious socialist with some “odd” tory notions. This is epitomized in Canada’ greatest political philosopher, George Grant.) A “third way” is the participatory tradition of civic republicanism, emphasizing democracy and community identity over against liberal individualism, manifesting perhaps most famously in French Canada.
It is in examining this third competing alternative that we are likely to raise the question of Canada’s fraught history with the Indigenous peoples of this land. Most Canadians will be aware of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and will have an at least cursory familiarity with the debates that led to and continue to surround it. The question, to summarize (and therefore to simplify), is this: What is to be the relationship between Canada and the Indigenous nations? How are they to engage, and ultimately participate in a common project, with one another? How do we atone for the past while simultaneously charting a workable course forward, based on mutually agreeable relationships?
While I don’t presume to offer here an exhaustive account of the debates, themes, and questions that inform and define what Canada is, and what it means to be Canadian, these are at least some key avenues readers could follow if Canada’s 150th birthday has instilled some curious reflection on what it is we’re commemorating this July 1st. For fellow Canadian bookworms and Canadaphiles, here are a few recommendations for some reading on our nation’s roots, the nature of our regime and way of life, and the ongoing questions that shape our current and future direction. Each of these books and collections of essays tackle the themes and questions I’ve raised here in what are, I think, influential and interesting ways. I hope you find them fruitful as well. And if I’ve missed anything you think deserves a mention, sound off in the comments below.
Lament for a Nation – George Grant
Canada’s Origins: Liberal, Tory, or Republican? – ed. Janet Ajzenstat and Peter J. Smith
Canada’s Founding Debates – ed. Janet Ajzenstat, Paul Romney, Ian Gentles, and William D. Gairdner
Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada – Emma Battell Lowman and Adam J. Barker
1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal – Christopher Moore
Reconciling the Solitudes: Essays on Canadian Federalism and Nationalism – Charles Taylor
Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition – Glen Coulthard
It’s the Regime, Stupid! – Barry Cooper
Deconfederation: Canada Without Quebec – David J. Bercuson and Barry Cooper
Canadian Political Philosophy – ed. Ronald Beiner and Wayne Norman
The Road to Confederation – Donald Creighton
The North American High Tory Tradition – Ron Dart
By Loving Our Own: George Grant and the Legacy of Lament for a Nation – ed. Peter C. Emberley
Canadian Politics, 4th Edition – ed. James Bickerton and Alain-G. Gagnon
Reinventing Canada: Politics of the 21st Century – Janine Brodie and Linda Trimble
Readings in Canadian Foreign Policy: Classic Debates and New Ideas – ed. Duane Bratt and Christopher J. Kukucha